Lesson 5: Highway Driving
Rules & Tips For Driving On The Highway
Driving on the highway can be intimidating at first. But if you know and follow the rules you'll be safe.
The first thing you want to remember is that your eye-lead-time Increases to 20 seconds (or about 500 meters). This means you want to look ahead as far as your eyes can see.
Having just mentioned the high eye lead time we are aiming for, it stands to reason that we don't want to travel too close behind a large vehicle. First, if we can't see their mirrors then they can't see us (which is not a good thing). Second, and more importantly, if there is an emergency up ahead we won't know about it or have time to prepare until the truck in front of slams on their brake - and it may be too late to stop safely.
Note: Larger vehicles traveling at high speeds can create turbulence. This can cause your vehicle to sway. For the most part, this is harmless but you will want to be aware of it so that it doesn't catch you off-guard.
Try to position yourself so you have at least one lane beside you that’s clear in the event of an emergency in front of you. Keep at least a 3-second gap in front of you because higher speeds mean things happen faster than you may think.
Another thing to note is cars approaching from behind are traveling at higher speeds. Make sure you are taking that into account when changing lanes even if they seem like they're so far away. Highway speeds mean you need larger space margins to make lane changes. For example this vehicle (shown below) was in our blind spot within 2 seconds of this snap shot. Whereas in the city this amount of space may suffice for a lane change, on the highway it does not.
Entering the Highway
Entering the highway is simple. It can be broken down into three zones. They are:
The Zone of Acceleration
This is where we focus on getting our speed up. This is very important because when we are merging we need to be traveling at the speed other vehicles are traveling at on the highway. However, there is a caveat: Some drivers speed on the highway, even those in the travel-lane (i.e. the right most lane). But we do not want to go over the speed limit. This is where the zone of observation comes into play.
The Zone of Observation
This is where we look ahead to see what the traffic is doing but also looking in our mirrors to see if there’s a safe gap for us to merge. We also turn on our left signal indicating our intention to merge. If there are other cars in front of us in the merge lane, we want to leave lots of space between ourselves and the car in front of us.
The Merge Zone
This is basically when we start merging with the traffic on the highway. By getting ourselves up to speed and observing the traffic we are about to merge with, we have set ourselves up for a successful merge. At the core, merging is simply a lane change. Now, since it is a lane change, we need to perform a shoulder check and make sure there isn’t a vehicle in our blind spot. Once you have merged into the nearest lane, you’ll want to glance at your rear view mirror before continuing to look well ahead. By looking further ahead you tend to centre yourself in your lane as well.
Avoid stopping at the end of the Merge Lane
Unless there is an absolute emergency, we do not want to stop at the end of the merge lane. There was a reason why we accelerated in the beginning: so that we can merge successfully with the traffic.
Avoid Merging Prematurely
Make sure you are not crossing the white solid line and merging too soon. You’ll want to merge near the end of the merge lane.
The Zipper Merge
What happens when you accelerate in the zone of acceleration but you notice in the zone of observation that the there’s a lot of traffic on the highway. How do you merge? You zipper merge of course! What do we mean by zipper merge? You alternate merging with the traffic on the highway, just like a zipper. In other words, imagine there is a vehicle in front of you in the merge lane. Once it is apparent between which two vehicles they are merging, you will want to merge behind the vehicle that’s behind them. In most cases drivers will cooperate and let you merge in alternating manner. However, it is still your responsibility to indicate your intention by signalling, shoulder checking, and making eye contact. Unfortunately some drivers have tunnel vision and aren’t paying attention to the sides of their vehicle so they may not see you. You need to be gauging whether or not they are slowing down a bit or giving you some room to merge.
Driving On The Highway
As we mentioned earlier, things tends to be slightly different on the highway than driving in the city. For example, you need to be looking further down the road and leaving more space between the vehicle in front of you. But there are also a few other things to consider:
The Travel Lane
The travel lane is the left-most lane when there are two or more lanes of traffic traveling in the same direction and the speed limit is 80km/hr or greater. Effective June 2015, motorists in British Columbia are required to keep right and let others pass.
The Passing Lane
The passing lane is defined as any other lane that’s traveling in the same direction except for the left-most (travel) lane. Here are the only times you are allowed to be in the passing lane:
- If you overtaking or passing another vehicle.
- Making room for a vehicle that’s about to merge.
- You are preparing to use an exit that’s on the left hand side.
- Passing a vehicle that has flashing (yellow, blue, or red) lights on. This is also known as the slow down and move over law. More on this below in the Passing A Vehicle With Flashing Lights On The Side of the Road section.
When the speed of the traffic is 50km/hr or lower (i.e. rush hour) you may remain in the passing lane if you wish to do so. However, when the traffic speed goes above 50km/hr you need to return to the travel lane.
We’re not making this up. It’s the law. Here it is written in the Motor Vehicle Act.
Failure to adhere will cost you: Fail to Keep Right $109 + 3 Driver Penalty Points
Preparing to Stop in the Highway
Highways have intersections with signal lights just like in the city. Since you are traveling at higher speeds, prior to a traffic-signal-controlled intersection you will see a warning sign like this one.
When the flashing lights come on on this sign, it means the traffic light up ahead will be changing soon. Therefore, you will need to prepare to stop. It’s a thing of beauty: if you follow the law and keep your speed at or below posted speed limit, when those lights start flashing, you will have enough time to stop safely up ahead.
You will want to glance at your rear view mirror to see what the vehicle behind you is doing. Is it following too close behind you? Does the driver seem distracted? As you slow down are they doing the same thing?
Passing A Vehicle With Flashing Lights On The Side of the Road
We touched on this earlier - every time you see a vehicle parked on the side of the road with flashing lights, you’ll want to slow down and move over for them. This includes, police, fire, ambulance, tow trucks, and generally anybody that’s performing a maintenance, etc. Not only is it the law, but it just makes sense. Imagine you are a tow truck driver trying to help a fellow motorist while there are cars zooming past you at a high speed with only inches to spare. Therefore, if the posted speed limit is 80km/hr or higher, you need to slow down to 70km/hr and move over to another lane if available and is safe to do so.
Exiting From The Highway
As you approach the exit you are interested in, you’ll want to check your rear view mirror, and your right side mirror, signal, shoulder check and move over into the exit lane. It’s only when you’re completely in this lane that you should start to slow down. This keeps you predictable on the road since the vehicles traveling behind you are not expecting you to suddenly slow down in front of them. If you happen to miss your exit, you need to proceed to the next exit. Sudden last minute swerves, stopping, or reversing are totally unacceptable on the road. Again, be predictable on the road.
At higher speeds, your vehicle needs subtle input from you. You should avoid sudden steering, braking, or acceleration. When you are changing lanes, it should be a subtle steer to the left or right. Similarly, when you are entering or exiting the highway, if you notice you need to slow down or adjust your speed, ease off the accelerator rather than hard braking unless you are faced with an emergency.
Road and Visibility Condition
Adjust your speed for the road conditions. This common-sense rule is always in effect regardless of whether or not you are on the highway. If it’s raining hard or visibility is poor, you may want to reconsider the speed you are traveling at. Just because the sign says Maximum 80km/hr, doesn’t mean you can safely travel at that speed all the time.
Speeders and Tailgaters
Which leads us to speeders. They are everywhere - in the travel lane, in the passing lane, etc. When you try and keep to the speed limit, they come up really close behind you and intentionally or unintentionally cause other drivers to increase their speed in an effort to increase their gap between the tailgater. Unfortunately, this method is often times ineffective because the tailgater will simply increase their speed relative to you. Therefore, a better strategy may be to ease of the gas (not quickly but very gradually) and drop your speed by a few kilometers per hour. This will entice the tailgater to change lanes and move on. Having said that, you never want to aggravate an aggressive driver. So look well ahead and avoid making eye contact as their pass by.
What are the difference between a Highway and Freeway?
Most people seem to use the words highway and free interchangeably. There are some key differences between the two. They are:
Posted speed limits range from 70-90km/hr.
Means of Traffic Separation
Some sections of the highway may separate the opposing-direction of traffic with only painted lines on the road.
You may find access to a highway through a (sign or signal-controlled) intersection or even a driveway.
Will usually have one or two lanes of traffic in each direction and provide a lower traffic volume than a freeway.
Posted speed limits are higher 100-120km/hr.
Means of Traffic Separation
There are physical barriers in place such as a median to separate the oncoming traffic.
You may only get on or off a freeway through the use of an on or off-ramp.
Will have multiple lanes of traffic in each direction and can be very busy at times. Capable of handling a larger volume of traffic as compared to a highway.
Here are a few more differences between the two. The shoulders on a freeways are usually paved where as a highway can have gravel shoulders. The signage posted in a freeway are noticeably larger than a highway to allow you to see them from further away. Highways may have sharp turns whereas in a freeway they are much more gradual.
Put These Concepts Into Practice!
It's one thing to read about highway rules, it's another to get out there and practice! Practice with your co-driver or enroll the help of a professional driving school like ours. Because what you hear, you forget; what you see, you remember; and what you do, you know.
About the Author
Every time ICBC releases the Crashes and Casualties Statistics, I have a hard time wrapping my head around the number of collisions. I ask myself, "how many of those collisions could have been avoided if the drivers involved knew better?" I am hoping by providing this resource, more drivers can be in the know about right driving habits and perhaps we can work towards reducing those statistics.